Former UN education boss says he is losing hope of getting all children into school

Nicholas Burnett, former assistant director-general for education at UNESCO. Photo by: Centre for Distance Education / CC BY-SA

WASHINGTON — A former senior education official with the United Nations has described the persistent problem of millions of kids being out of school as “the biggest failure of the global education system,” and has called for a dedicated global campaign to make sure the most marginalized children are not forgotten.

Nicholas Burnett, former assistant director-general for education at the U.N.’s education agency, UNESCO, said that while it is good to see global education climbing the development agenda, he believes the problem of out-of-school children has dropped off the radar.

Some 263 million children around the world, or 1 in every 5 children, are not in school, according to UNESCO’s latest estimates.

“The biggest failure of the international global education system is this persistent problem of out-of-school children … It is the most important, forgotten thing. It’s the central piece of unfinished business,” he said in an interview with Devex.

Furthermore, the emphasis on improving learning outcomes for those already in school threatens to eclipse the problem of those who are still not in the classroom, he suggested.

“The international community is currently very focused on learning by those already in school … but [those efforts] need to be complemented with a specific global campaign to get every child into school, with specific annual targets,” Burnett said.

According to the UNESCO report, the OOSC rate at primary level has “barely moved over the past decade,” with approximately 9 percent —  63 million children — not in school. A further 61 million adolescents of lower secondary school age, and 139 million youth of upper secondary school age are not enrolled.

Drawing on data from UNESCO and the World Bank for sub-Saharan Africa, Burnett said: “Of every 100 African children enrolling in grade one primary school, by the time they complete primary school, about 40 will have dropped out, a percentage that has incredibly not changed since the 1970s. Of the 60 who remain, only half will be performing at grade level.”

This lack of progress is having knock-on effects, with approximately 770 million illiterate adults around the world, a figure that is “almost certainly an underestimate,” he said.  

Burnett also worried about the gender dimension to the issue: More than half of the children who drop out of school are girls and two-thirds of illiterate adults are women.

The education veteran, who oversaw UNESCO’s “Global Education Monitoring” report and is now board chair of UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning, said he is fast losing hope.

“When I was director of GEM, I was very sure that in my lifetime we would see every child in school. But now I’m 68 and I’m not at all sure. It’s a terrible damnation of my generation,” he said.

Vague targets

Part of the problem is with the Sustainable Development Goals for education, he said. While the predecessor targets, the Millennium Development Goals, were “quite rightly criticized” for focusing only on primary education, the response in the form of SDG4 — which calls for “free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education” — is too broad to be effective.

“Countries can almost always manage to say whatever they’re doing fits,” and there is a lack of “clear and simple targets or subtargets within SDG4 on things like these OOSC,” he said.

Combined with the added pressure of providing free secondary as well as primary education, many low- and middle-income governments have lost sight of the students hardest to reach, he said.  

“Somehow, SDG4 has lost the moral power that the simpler ... goals had,” he said.

“The simple concept of getting kids in school has got lost in the complications of everything … but we just can’t have a world in which children are not in school.”

“Sterile debates” continue to dominate and paralyze action within the global education sector, according to Burnett, who was also previously head of global education at the Washington, D.C.-based NGO Results for Development Institute. Arguments tend to center on whether education should be thought of as a human right or a way of promoting economic growth; whether schooling should be provided by the public or private sector; and whether education should use evidence from randomized controlled trials, he said.

The energy spent on these debates is a “terrible diversion of talent,” which would be better spent on finding “pragmatic solutions such as how do we get these kids into school.”

Another key problem is what Burnett described as a lack of leadership around the importance of education within the global development sector.

“I don’t see massive statements from UNESCO or UNICEF or the World Bank or the regional development banks about the importance of education,” he said.

What discussion there is tends to focus on the “learning crisis,” the issues around learning outcomes which were the topic of last year’s flagship World Bank report, but to the exclusion of other issues.

Declining aid flows to education and the “uncoordinated nature of the international aid agencies and major bilaterals” are another problem, Burnett said.  

“I don’t see massive statements from UNESCO or UNICEF or the World Bank or the regional development banks about the importance of education.”

— Nicholas Burnett, former assistant director-general for education at UNESCO

A global campaign

Fixing the OOSC problem and improving global education is a massive challenge, Burnett admitted.

“It’s not a matter of tweaking a few things here or there, it’s about getting the largest element of nonmilitary public service — which is teachers — to do things differently, and that’s not an easy thing to achieve,” he said.

The challenges are so large and complex, no wonder “you can improve rural electrification more quickly than you can rural education.”

In response, he wants to see donors “collectively prioritize” their spending and make sure it includes a focus on OOSC, something which has so far not been the case, he said. Burnett could name only one organization dedicated solely to the cause of getting all children into school — the Qatar-based Education Above All.  

What is needed is a specific global campaign that includes specific annual targets at both the country and global level aimed at getting the number of OOSC at primary level down to zero within a few years, he said.

The targets should allow more time to get all children into secondary school, but will “have to recognize and welcome the role of low-fee private schools as well as public education in achieving these goals,” he said.

That issue has been controversial among some in the global education sector.

The effort will be expensive, he added, since those children who remain out of school tend to live in remote areas, and sometimes live with disabilities.

“It is going to cost more per child to get them into school, and we should recognize that as an equity issue,” he said.

“What could be more important than getting every child into school? It won't be sufficient just to say that SDG4 already encompasses getting them out of school into school, although it does. A specific global campaign would be easy for everyone in the world to understand.”

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.